voices of women in law // voix des femmes en droit


Written by Megan E. Hodges.

As educated and liberal-minded individuals, we know that we must nod vigorously in agreement with the woman’s right to choose. To say otherwise would elicit gasps of horror from our peers. But is it so simple to justify the pro-abortion stance? Often when engaging in these debates, those who support the right to abortion find themselves forced to admit that, all things being equal, the moral prohibition against killing is perhaps more important, more stringent than the right to bodily autonomy. I mean, we are talking about killing a human – “the innocent unborn,” as they say, if a little chillingly. Why, if the mother would just leave it alone for nine months, it would grow into a beautiful and unique little snowflake! Right?

There is no doubt that the abortion question is perplexing. We feel, viscerally, that the right to choose what happens to our bodies is fundamental. It is said that abortion disproportionately affects women (um, yeah), that abortion rights go to the heart of gender equality, that going through with an unwanted pregnancy is physically and psychologically traumatizing, and that laws prohibiting safe abortion merely force women to seek out risky alternatives.

While these arguments are certainly compelling, they are peripheral. They do not go the heart of whether or not the act of abortion is, in itself, ethically justifiable. As such, for those who believe that a fetus has a fundamental right to life, that to abort is to commit murder, the arguments mentioned above are merely regrettable by-products of an inevitable and incontrovertible state of affairs. The terror of the pregnant thirteen year old whose father will surely kick her out of the house holds no sway when the fetus has a right to life!

The argument of the anti-abortionist goes something like this: 1) A fetus is a person; 2) Every person has a right to life; 3) The right to life trumps the right to decide what happens to one’s body; 4) Abortion cannot be permitted. Those who defend abortion rights typically put pressure on the first premise, stating confidently that a fetus is not a person.

The problem here is the blasé attachment of a non-reality (personhood) to a reality. Those who defend abortion must draw a proverbial line in the personhood sand: before the line, the fetus is not a person, and after the line, it is. And yet, in doing so, we are grounding our value system in a valueless fact – a fact that in essence tells us nothing about the value at stake. There is nothing about having a heartbeat, or being viable outside the womb, or having brain activity, or feeling pain, or moving one’s fingers that goes to the core of what it is to be a person.

Truthfully, I find personhood line-drawing to be an exercise in futility. It is a flimsy argument at best, highly dubious at worst, and is completely unpersuasive to those who do not want to be persuaded. It does not come close to delivering the knockout punch. As such, those of us who wish to defend abortion rights in philosophical debate have our work cut out for ourselves: we must grant that a fetus is a person, with all the rights attendant to personhood, and still arrive at the conclusion that abortion is ethically justified.

Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that a fetus is a human being, a person, from the moment of conception. From the moment the sperm penetrates the ovum, that cluster of cells carries with it all the rights that spring from personhood. Perhaps most importantly, that cluster of cells has a right to life. But does it have a right to life by any means necessary? Does the right to life include the right to make use of another person’s body in order to sustain that life? If we hold that one’s inherent right to life is more exacting than one’s right to choose what happens to their body, would that not transform us all into involuntary organ donors? If I need your kidney to survive, that is, if I cannot continue to live unless you, specifically, give me your kidney, do I have a right to it? If my right to life trumps your right to decide what happens to your body, then that kidney is mine. What if I don’t even require your kidney, I just require you to spend nine months throwing up every morning; to watch your body distend and distort into unrecognizable proportions from which it will probably never recover; to suffer incontinence, mood swings, and hemorrhoids, not to mention a slew of other unpredictable physical and psychological side effects. But only for nine months. Nine months that will culminate in a wild, 30-hour crescendo of pelvis-shattering blows and ripped genitalia. Do you have a moral obligation go through this if my survival depends on it? It may be very kind of you to do so, but are you morally held to it? I think not.

Most people do not think that there is a moral obligation to sacrifice one’s body to save the life of another. So pro-lifers can harp on fetal personhood all they want; it carries no argumentative clout regarding the moral obligations of pregnant women. If we follow the anti-abortionist’s premise of fetal personhood to its logical conclusion, we are left with a stringent moral obligation to surrender the use of our body to any person who needs it. It all sounds plausible enough to begin with, but when we begin to really flesh out just what it means for a right to life to trump a right to bodily autonomy, we are left with all manner of unsavoury conclusions.

Et voilà: one person’s right to life does not impose moral obligations on the bodies of others. With that, I urge you: go forth, dear reader! Banish the anti-abortion school, with its painfully limited process of thought and utter failure of compassion, whence it came!

Now I know you may wish to glaze over this piece – yet another feminist diatribe by another shrieking harpy. And anyway, the war is over. We’ve won! But know this; in my opinion, you can boil all the feminist values down to one, and that one is freedom of choice – the right to choose, to make autonomous decisions. Without the freedom of choice – choice of clothing, speech, religion, whatever – we cannot be the authors of our lives. And the first step in controlling the minds of women is controlling their bodies. An objectified, commodified, dehumanized body cannot resist the institutional violence wrought upon it.

Note: The main points of this article are drawn from arguments in Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion” (Fall 1971) 1:1 Philosophy & Public Affairs. For those interested in philosophical explorations of ethical issues in health and medicine, I urge you to read Thomson’s article in full.

Contours is made possible by funding from the McGill Law Students’ Association / L’Association des étudiant-e-s en droit de McGill. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part without permission from the authors.

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